Squirm-worthy Tinychat is Chatroulette plus

Fast-growing site that lets you connect to Webcams around the world adds a new location feature. CNET logs on and gets uncomfortable fast.

Boonsri Dickinson
Boonsri Dickinson is a multimedia journalist who covers science, technology, and start-ups. She is a contributing editor at CBS SmartPlanet, and her work has appeared in Wired, New Scientist, Technology Review, and Discover magazine. E-mail Boonsri.
Boonsri Dickinson
3 min read

If Chatroulette made you squirm, then you'll definitely have trouble with Tinychat and its new location-sharing feature.

Chatroulette, you'll recall, is the site that lets you randomly connect to Webcams around the world. There's always a chance you'll find an interesting person and engage in a fascinating conversation. But you're more likely to connect to someone showing off body parts that would normally be covered by clothing.

Chatroulette focuses on one-to-one contact, but you can move on from one video chat to another by hitting "next." The site rolled out with local features called Localroulette that snatched users' IP addresses, but the idea didn't take off--the Web page for the local service doesn't exist anymore.

Now, for better or worse, Tinychat has revived the location-sharing idea (as an optional feature), and it goes a step farther than Chatroulette in another area as well. It displays several Webcam streams on a single page ("Brady Bunch" style), thus creating the equivalent of a chat room.

If you think the prospect of even more exposed body parts--attached to people who know where you live--would appeal only to the very brave or the very bizarre, you might want to think again: Tinychat says it's growing at a rate of 50,000 new users every day and that there are about 30,000 active chat rooms (public and private) receiving a million visits a day. The company also boasts of having some celebrity backers, including Ashton Kutcher, Diddy, Madonna manager Guy Oseary, and Ron Burkle.

The new location feature is optional and reveals only a 10-mile radius if you decide to share where you are.

"This is all about continuing to make the world a more connected place via the Web," Tinychat's co-founder Dan Blake said in a statement. "Say, if there's a regular Tinychat room you use to discuss fishing, we think this feature will make it even easier for those users to meet 'IRL' [in real life] for an actual fishing trip."

With some hesitation, I decided to give it a try. I felt like I was peeping into people's bedrooms from the discomfort of my office. For a while, it seemed innocent enough. Who doesn't love people-watching? Then I plugged in my Webcam and chose to find cams near me from a Google Maps-like page in which little squares represent nearby chats.

I entered a chat in which the rules were to respect the others in the room and leave the drama outside. But no drama = boring. One girl kept singing to herself. One guy answered his cell phone and started talking to his friend about boyfriend problems. Another girl just left her cam on as she took a nap at 4:35 p.m.

I entered another chat room and watched a guy with headphones on in his pj's. In the same room, I listened to a man tell his life story. Another gentleman seemed like he was playing 20 questions with the group. A girl was listening, putting lip gloss on as if no one could see her. I lurked, turned off my Webcam, and listened to the conversation. One man talked about how he cried during the "Transformers" movie and how he thinks G.I. Joe is a hero.

Soon the movie talk turned into a strategy planning meeting for getting nude pictures from each other.

This is what it felt like: being stuck on a train and forced to eavesdrop on terrible conversations. Just like with that loud talker on the train, I felt these people were too close to me--the end of the ride couldn't come quickly enough. And knowing these people lived within 10 miles of me made things worse--I might get stuck behind one of them in line at Whole Foods, while they went on about G.I Joe. San Francisco is a small town, after all.